Peoples of China

Changing Paradigms

 Identifying and discipling unreached groups (UPGs) has always been a little like shooting at moving targets. By the time the results of most UPG research projects are published, the data is often out of date. Discipling strategies based on such “snapshot” views without taking change factors into account will, at best, fall short and, at worst, will widely miss the mark. This is especially true in China today in light of the wrenching social upheavals engendered by the country’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). In some cases the changes are minor, involving little more than the revision of statistics. In other cases, however, the changes are huge, requiring completely new approaches to both UPG research and ministry strategies.

On the positive side, the progress made towards the goal of identifying and targeting the ethno-linguistic peoples of China during the past 25 years has been remarkable. Today, due to the pioneering research of dedicated individuals, the scope of the task of reaching these peoples has been clearly defined. The task is far from complete, but dozens of these people groups have been targeted for evangelization, and thousands of Christians from hundreds of churches and agencies are working among them.

More important, the church in China is taking up the challenge. Operation China, the definitive work on China’s ethno-linguistic peoples, has been translated into simplified Chinese and is being printed and distributed within China. Church leaders within the country have pledged to send evangelists to each of the unreached people groups profiled in the book.[1]

However, ongoing research must be conducted to track changes in these groups even as efforts to reach them are underway. One significant development is the massive migration of rural peoples to the cities of China. As migrants from various unreached people groups flood into the cities, it may be that urban mission programs will prove to be more strategic than the current model of concentrating our efforts on taking the gospel to these peoples in their rural village settings.

In addition, some of these groups, especially those made up of the majority Han Chinese, are huge, made up of tens of millions, even hundreds of millions of people. These are macro people groups, and it is not realistic to expect that just because they speak the same language the gospel will spread throughout them without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance. As we consider the challenge of reaching these groups, we must consider the sociological barriers to the spread of the gospel that exist in China.

The Rural / Urban Barrier.

One of the major barriers that must be overcome if we are to reach the remaining unreached peoples of China is the barrier between rural and urban peoples. Most of the rapid church growth in China over the past 50 years has taken place in rural areas. The cities of China are still largely unreached with Christians comprising less than one percent of the population in most of them. With the notable exception of campus ministries, most Christian outreach efforts in China are focused on rural areas. In part, it is our orientation to targeting specific ethno-linguistic groups that has led to this imbalance. Ethno-linguistic differences exist in the cities, but socio-economic distinctions are at least as important—and often more important than these.  An urban intellectual Zhuang, for example, may have more in common with urban intellectual Han Chinese than with uneducated Zhuang laborers working on the road outside his office.[2]

The Education Barrier.

The barriers between people of various education levels are symbolized by the historical class distinctions between Chinese scholars and the peasants. We don’t use the latter term in the West much anymore, but it is still quite commonly employed by educated Chinese to refer to their uneducated countrymen. Chinese place a very high premium on education, and the shame that accompanies lack of education, as well as the pride that is engendered by advanced education, create formidable barriers to the spread of the gospel from the uneducated to the educated and vice-versa.  On the other hand, educated individuals from the West often find it quite easy to connect with educated people in China, especially if they are employed in similar occupations. I recently accompanied a team of ESL teachers as they trained a group of Chinese ESL teachers in Beijing. We were all amazed at the immediate connection and significant identification that took place between these American and Chinese ESL teachers.

China’s entry into the WTO has opened up many new opportunities for professionals from the West to work in China. We need to take advantage of these opportunities by sending the best and brightest from our churches to practice their profession in China. The intense desire most Chinese have to increase their educational qualifications provides great opportunities for Christian educators from the West to make an impact in China today.

The Generation Gap.

One impact of China’s entry into the WTO is the growing gap between young and old in China. Bombarded by Western culture, many youth and young adults in China are turning away from traditional ways to embrace “the fast life.” Watching the crowds from an unobtrusive vantage point inside a Pizza Hut in Beijing, I observed a couple kissing and hugging in a public display of affection that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. The international youth culture is taking hold on the young people of China in a powerful way. Churches in the West have long recognized the necessity of programs geared to young people. Who will take up the challenge of planting Gen-x and -y churches in China?

The Wealth Gap.

The growing gap between the wealthy and poor in China has the potential to significantly destabilize the country. As a result of China’s compliance with the requirements of the WTO, tens of millions of Chinese have already or will soon lose their jobs. Riots are breaking out with alarming frequency in cities across China, as disenfranchised farmers and workers demand their share of the wealth they see others amassing, even as they are laid off. Aside from political implications of the growing wealth gap, we have the command of our Lord to care for and speak up for the poor. Both wealth and poverty create barriers to the spread of the gospel, and Christians who minister in China must find ways to overcome those barriers to be effective in advancing the kingdom of God in this time of wrenching change.

And More.

We have only begun to touch on the many sociological barriers to the spread of the gospel in China today. A recent government report from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences describes Chinese society as being comprised of ten different occupational strata, including such groups as state and social administrators, managers, private business owners, professional/technical personnel, workers and farmers.[3] Perhaps we can discuss the challenges of reaching people in these and the other strata of Chinese society in future columns.

What is clear, even from this cursory look, is that we do need to think about unreached Chinese people groups in new ways. China is changing, and if we are to remain effective in China ministry we must think through the implications of those changes for our work. Looking at the complexities of Chinese society through a sociological lens can help us identify and breach more of the barriers. Let us not be slothful, comfortably continuing to do what we have always done.  Rather, let us adjust to the new realities in China, obediently and creatively seeking to make disciples of all the peoples of that great land, whether they are ethno-linguistically or sociologically defined.


  1. ^ Limited funding has hampered this strategic project. Contact ChinaSource for more information on how you can help.
  2. ^ For discussion on the barriers between rural and urban peoples, see “Country Bumpkins and City Slickers” in the Summer 2000 issue of ChinaSource
  3. ^ Lu Xueyi, ed., Research Report on Social Strata in Contemporary China, Social Sciences Documentation Publishers, January 2002, as cited in “China’s Society Makes a Comeback” by Carol Lee Hamrin in the Fall 2002 issue of ChinaSource.


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Jim Nickel

Jim Nickel was vice president of ChinaSource from 2000 to 2004 and was involved in promoting work among the unreached Chinese peoples for many yearsView Full Bio